Lecture 11: The Poetry of Culture: Poststructuralism & Discourse (2008)

Lecturer's Note: Lecture 11 material was combined with Lecture 10 and Lecture 12; the notes can be found on those Wiki pages.

A discursive construct is therefore a socially constructed way of talking about, thinking about, and, by extension, acting in relation to, a given phenomenon – such as “human nature” in the example above. Moreover, discursive constructs also tend to be governed by cultural codes or conventions. That is, some representations are more likely to be articulated together than others because cultural codes determine whether a given discursive construct will “make sense” or not within a given culture.
To extend the example above, highly individualistic and selfinterested representations of human nature are easily intelligible when interpreted through the dominant codes of modern Western-liberal cultures. Some non-Western cultures, however, have historically represented human nature in a much more “relational” manner, with interests being understood primarily in communal rather than individualistic terms. In such cultures, Western representations of human nature would be relatively unintelligible.17 Discursive constructs are therefore culturally and historically specific. Even though they may have only a vague meaning, if any, in other cultures or at other times, they have very specific meanings that translate into concrete material practices within the cultures that articulate them.
To extend the analysis further: discursive constructs can be articulated together into highly complex systems of representation – entire discourses – which tend also to be governed by cultural codes or conventions. Discourses are widely shared systems of representation which provide culturally and historically specific ways of thinking about, talking about, and acting in relation to an entire class of phenomena. It is in this context that the connection between cultural codes and social practices becomes especially apparent.

In this context, all discourses share a number of similar characteristics.
They articulate what is generally “sayable” or “thinkable” in relation to a given class of phenomena in any given cultural and historical context. They articulate bodies of “knowledge,” as well as authoritative producers of this knowledge that in turn constitute culturally and historically specific beliefs or “truths” about these phenomena. They articulate their “subjects” – the people that act within them or that they act upon – in such a manner that these subjects can be seen to, or even start to, personify or conform to these representations. And finally, they articulate social structures that organize and regulate collective practice in a manner that is consistent with these representations.
Moreover, discourses are as much defined by what they exclude as by what they include. They simultaneously influence what is not sayable or not thinkable in a given cultural context; what does not constitute authoritative knowledge or truth and who is not an authoritative producer of such knowledge or truth; how subjects should not act; and what institutional configurations are not present.

To extend the analysis even further, while discursive constructs can be articulated together into entire discourses, entire discourses can in turn be articulated with other discourses into comprehensive discursive formations.18 In this context, a comprehensive discursive formation refers to the articulation of distinct but mutually compatible discourses in a manner that reinforces similar ways of thinking, talking, and acting in relation to many classes of phenomena. And once again, discourses articulate together into larger discursive formations according to cultural codes or conventions.
Discourses enable as well as constrain us. They provide the productive scaffolding for human talk, thought, and practice, even though that scaffolding simultaneously limits us in various ways. Either way, discourses are an inevitable and necessary feature of social existence. Human beings are discursive creatures. We will always exist within discursive environments. The challenge, from a cultural studies standpoint, is to remain aware that these environments are culturally constructed and that they can be reformed.

This is an excerpt from "Discourse and Culture" by Michael Karlberg, 2004
visit http://www.ac.wwu.edu/~karlberg/420/420DiscourseAndCulture.pdf for the rest of the article.

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